• Victor C. Bolles

The Limits of Diplomacy



President Joe Biden has just returned from his first overseas diplomatic mission which was either a magnificent success or an abysmal failure depending on which news organization you follow. The truth of the matter is that there are limits to what can be achieved diplomatically and, even in the best of circumstances, diplomatic advances are slow and tedious. Advances are usually negotiated well in advance of any summit by mid-level diplomats and administrative personnel and announced or signed with great fanfare at international gatherings of political leaders. This type of slow incrementalism did not sit well with the mercurial and spontaneous one-on-one style of former President Trump which is why he made a shambles of international diplomacy during his tenure.


Diplomats around the world breathed a sigh of relief when Joe Biden replaced Donald Trump. But President Biden faces a daunting task in rebuilding an international community with the capability to confront the challenges of an increasingly multi-polar and more perilous world. In truth, America’s diplomatic standing had been in decline long before Donald Trump arrived on the scene. From the heights of the Washington Consensus that developed after America’s strategic victory that ended the Cold War with the collapse of the Soviet Union, America has fallen from a unipolar hegemon to a laughingstock. From Bill Clinton’s feckless lobbing of cruise missiles at Osama Bin Laden, to George Bush’s ill-considered invasion of Iraq, to Barack Obama’s leading from behind, the United States has squandered the opportunity to create a more peaceful and prosperous world, leaving instead an enfeebled and chaotic globe on the brink of economic decline and edging ever closer to conflict.


But it will take more than diplomacy to restore world order. Diplomacy is only one tool in the toolkit of global leadership. And quite honestly our World War Two era toolkit is out of date and incapable of dealing with today’s challenges. That WWII-era toolkit was based on two foundations, the industrial, martial and financial power of the United States and the system of multilateral international institutions that began with the Bretton Woods institutions but eventually encompassed a much greater scope of global integration.


The United States no longer dominates a war-weakened world as it did in 1945, but at the end of the Cold War it was still in a very powerful position. Many nations emulated the example presented by the United States by transforming into democratic governments and free market economies in the late Twentieth Century. But democracies are messy and free markets can produce uneven results. The outcomes of the Washington Consensus did not match the expectations of the people. Democracies are slipping into populism and authoritarianism. The cyclicalities of free markets are being replaced by the central planning of socialism. And the multilateral institutions created by Western nations to foster a peaceful and prosperous world are being coopted by non-Western nations to achieve very different goals.


This is not Joe Biden’s fault. It’s not even Donald Trump’s fault (as hard as that is for some to believe). After the fall of the Soviet Union, all of America felt that the country could step back from global responsibilities and focus on domestic problems and that the fate of world would stay on the track laid out by our World War Two leaders. But without the necessary power to keep things on track, the gyroscope of global politics is beginning to wobble. And our focus on domestic problems has heightened our divisions instead of strengthened our unity.


President Biden is correct that we need to rebuild our alliances in order to deal with the global challenges we face. And there is a role for diplomacy to play in rebuilding alliances and rebuilding a world order. What he does not realize is that it takes more than good intentions to achieve world peace and prosperity. It takes strength. And power. And the progressive social justice agenda and the Green New Deal focus on climate change that the Biden administration wants to implement in the United States will not create the strength and power needed for global leadership.


China has already made its commitment and it is for strength and power.

At the G-7 summit, French President Emmanuel Macron enthused, “I think it’s great to have a U.S. president part of the club, and very willing to cooperate.” But the United States cannot settle to just be a part of the club and be willing to cooperate. The US must lead the club. The US is the homerun hitter. It is the franchise player. The Super Bowl winning quarterback.


The only things you will get by cooperating with the club will be a toothless Paris Climate Agreement and a meaningless Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran deal). To rebuild a peaceful and prosperous world, the United States must take on the mantle of global leadership that had been shed by previous administrations because, as former Danish Prime Minister and Secretary General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has clearly stated, America’s role as global leader is “indispensable.”


To do this, the United States must replicate the factors that allowed it to be the global leader for seventy years. First, the United States must rebuild the industrial, martial and financial power that secured its position as world leader. The 21stcentury world is very different from the world of the 1950s and steel mills and stamping plants won’t give us the industrial power we require. We need to develop our capabilities in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, space exploration and a host of other emerging technologies to have the foundations to compete on a global scale. We will need a world class educational system that rewards superior academic performance to create a capable 21st century workforce, not one that coddles our children to prepare them to be the future dependents of a vast welfare state.


We need to invest in our military capabilities and in the industries necessary to support them. We need the ability to fight on two fronts simultaneously so that malevolent actors cannot keep us continuously occupied fighting on one front after another.


And we need a financial system that can support our global role. We need a financial system that does not generate exorbitant profits from financial engineering but one that creates economic growth and financial security. We need a fiscal plan not dependent on continual deficits but one that can reduce our mountain of public debt so that we will be prepared to withstand any crisis.


Secondly, we need to create a new and reinvigorated network of global institutions that can support democratic nations, free market economies and Western Enlightenment ideals and principles. The old multilateral institutions have been coopted by malevolent powers and are now used to subvert democratic governments and to evade international standards of behavior. The key element of these new institutions will be an expanded global NATO incorporating democratic countries committed to supporting their fellow democracies across the globe. We need to convince like-minded countries that such an alliance will not only forestall the aggression of authoritarian states that are currently on the rise, but also provide the prosperity that our people require.


America has more work to do at home. The drive for social justice and wealth redistribution that has shattered American unity must be reformulated. Diversity and inclusion only work when diverse people are united in achieving a common goal. The goal of preserving America’s democratic ideals and prosperous free market economy requires the participation of all Americans working together. The effort to accomplish this goal will do more to achieve the equitable, color-blind society envisioned by not only the Founders but also Martin Luther King, Jr., than identity politics, race-based redistribution and Marxist inspired central planning.


The fate of the world, literally, depends on the ability of America to shake off its current malaise and reinvigorate the advancement of our ideals and principles in the 21st century.

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